Bing Crosby Helped Put Monterey Peninsula On Map
The "Clambake" that Bing Crosby (left) created in the 1930s brought together professional golfers
and celebrities. Crosby is seen here with Bob Hope (center) and Babe Ruth, circa 1940. (USGA Museum)
As a lead-up to the 2010 U.S. Open to be played at Pebble Beach Golf Links June 17-20, usga.org will be highlighting some of the most compelling features of the Monterey Peninsula. During the month of January, we've reviewed the beginnings of golf on the peninsula, the creation of Pebble Beach and, now, Bing Crosby’s passion for the game that led to his long-standing pro-am.
Coming in February: video that captures picturesque Pebble Beach and its breathtaking beauty, as well as other ancillary stories about the U.S. Open.
By Mark Frost
Los Angeles - January. Monterey Peninsula. The AT&T at Pebble Beach, Spyglass, Poppy Hills. One of the big-ticket events that marks the beginning of the PGA Tour campaign. TV ratings, celebrity hi-jinks, stormy weather, a formula that’s worked since they first turned on the cameras more than 50 years ago.
What most viewers may not realize is that, without the efforts of the man who created this perennial funfest, there might not even be a Professional Golf Association Tour. Today he’s remembered primarily – if at all, by younger generations – as the voice of a Christmas carol, comforting and old school, as synonymous to the Christmas season as a peppermint stick.
In his heyday, at the height of his creative powers, he was George Clooney, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake rolled into one. Oscar winner; No. 1 at the box office five years running; the most No. 1 hits on disc in recording history; an innovative jazz artist; a pioneer for integration in the performing arts; an enormously wealthy executive; a racetrack and land baron; and a gifted amateur golfer.
Harry Lillis Crosby. A friend from his Spokane, Wash., neighborhood stuck a nickname on him at the age of 6; young Harry laughed his head off at a weekly local newspaper parody called “The Bingville Bugle,” so the friend took to calling him “Bingo from Bingville.” Later on, nobody remembers exactly when, Harry dropped the “o.” No celebrity performer, before or since, has ended up with a more fitting or poetic moniker.
Bing. The clear, silvery soul of his voice, the effortless ease of his song and dance routines, the ghostly gliding understated way he filled a room, the swoop of his smooth swing guiding a ball toward the flagstick.
He remained, always, a remote and private man, supremely self-possessed, easy to love and admire, rather hard to know. That withholding was at the center of what America loved about him. As attractive and breezy as he always seemed, he never asked for or needed their affection like so many over-eager show-biz types. Der Bingle. Everybody’s buddy but few people’s friend. One of the boys, but always a man apart.
Crosby loved golf. He loved pro golfers even more. He understood them implicitly; the thousands of hours spent perfecting a deceptively simple act, honing hard-earned skills in private, then putting them on public display – for money – once they appeared as natural and easy as breathing. Keeping cool, delivering under fire, never letting them see you break a sweat. Mastery: that was his bread and butter. Crosby played the game for fun, one of the few things in life that took him completely away from the business – from the pressure and often ridiculous obligations of fame – a reliable leveler; on the course, in the clubhouse, he could be just one of the boys again.
In the 1930s, at the height of his stardom, when the nascent PGA tour – a cobbled-together warm-weather circuit of minor contests for east coast pros who lost paychecks when their home clubs shut down for the winter – tried and nearly failed to string a few events together in California, Crosby stepped in.
He called it a “Clambake” – jazz slang for a blowout; no clams, as far as anyone remembers, were ever baked. A long weekend party at his spread on the beach in Del Mar, north of San Diego. All the pros on “tour” were invited. Crosby hooked them up with his Hollywood pals from Lakeside and Bel-Air who played the game, arranging the pairings for maximum laughs. Parties, live bands, Crosby and his buddies at the microphone after every round. He even put up the cash for the purse, putting to rest a legendary tale that he was tight with a buck. The first few “clambakes” all played out that way – casual, loosely arranged, beyond cool, played for amateur bragging rights and a desperately needed pay day for the often despairing pros. And just like that, the PGA’s west coast “swing” had a tent pole to build around.
World War II put an end to the Clambake, as it did to almost every native form of hedonism. Crosby went to war right along with the boys in uniform, touring European fronts with the USO, leading the bond drive at home. When it ended and the boys came home, Crosby bought a place up the coast in Monterey where he’d joined Cypress Point. He brought the clambake back as well, playing it now on the Peninsula’s classic courses. Just like the post-war PGA Tour itself, Crosby’s soiree got bigger, richer and a lot more serious – although there were plenty of laughs still to be had, and no shortage of booze.
Some veterans of the Del Mar days whispered it was never quite the same, but never mind, it was still the best excuse for a party between New Year’s and the Fourth of July, and now it lasted an entire week. Titans of industry begged for invitations; Crosby, by necessity, became even more remote and inscrutable. More legends were forged – on and off the courses – and when they began broadcasting the shindig a few years later, the whole country fell for the clambake.
Crosby himself stopped playing in the tournament in the 1950s, but stayed devoted to his event until his death in 1977, at a golf course in Spain minutes after finishing his final round. The Crosby family tried to maintain the tradition but withdrew a decade later; AT&T stepped in to keep the event going, and in the tradition of modern cooperate branding, changed the name to the AT&T National Pro-Am. Celebrities still participate and there’s still laughs to be had. There’s still good golf and great golf courses (Monterey Peninsula C.C. replaces Poppy Hills this year) and reliably stormy weather.
But there will never be another Crosby; the “Clambake” is no more.
Mark Frost is an award-winning author, recipient of the USGA Herbert Warren Wind Book Award in 2002 for “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”